Why Saving The Bees Might Be Simpler Than We Think

You may already be familiar with the disappearance of our world’s honey bees, Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), and the grave dilemma it presents: one third of our food, including nearly all our fruits and vegetables, relies on bees for pollination somewhere along the chain of production.  Scientists have been unable to pinpoint a single cause of the declining bee population, which has been dying off at annual rates of around 30%.  Autopsied bees have shown a variety of diseases and health complications, but one Argentine beekeeper may just have a way of saving the bees from all of these problems.

Oscar Perone has been a beekeeper in his home country since 1964.  Concerned about the bees’ well being, he wanted to design a beekeeping system that would benefit the bees above anyone else.  Since bees have survived at least 35 million years without any help from humans, Perone turned to the wild to study how colonies functioned in nature.  From his observations he realized conventional apiculture which has been used for almost two centuries interferes with techniques the bees have perfected over eons of evolution.  While Perone doesn’t believe that apicultural practices are directly causing CCD, he argues that they lower a colony’s immunity to illness and toxins. 

In the wild a beehive consists of a large nest (usually located inside a giant tree) with pollen stored on the sides and honey stored above.  The honey serves as food and insulation from the cold.  In Langstroth hives – standard industrial hives – Perone claims the panels are not high enough to build the big healthy nest bees need to stay healthy.  The nest is further stressed when beekeepers use smoke to drive the bees deeper in the hive so that honey can be taken. Furthermore most beekeepers harvest all the honey, leaving nothing for the colony, which is instead fed white sugar and other processed chemicals lacking the nutrients found in the bees’ natural alimentation.  Additionally commercial hives are covered with plastic ponchos in the winter with the intention of keeping the bees warm and dry, but this causes excess humidity and a lack of ventilation within the colony, breeding ideal conditions for disease and pathogens.

Another big weakness Perone identifies in conventional apiculture is the use of synthetic stamped wax.  In nature bees construct their hive out of a waxy material they themselves excrete as a waste product.  The cells honeybees make are smaller than the cells of the synthetic wax.  Stamped wax with enlarged cells was first fabricated in 1893, with the idea that bees would grow bigger over time and produce more honey.  Commercial bees did enlarge but the change in cell size also gave the Varroa destructor better access within the hive.  Since the 1960s (1990s in the U.S.) this mite has been entering honeycombs, reproducing, and transmitting debilitating diseases to bees.    

Perone’s hives though have never had any trouble with Varroa destructors or CCD.  Since 2004 he’s been using his own system, “Permapiculture” (“Permanent” + “apiculture”) He never uses commercial “nuc colonies” but instead attracts wild swarms to his hives, which are made to simulate a natural beehive. 

In his latest design Perone stacks square wooden frames to a combined height of 57 centimeters.  The uppermost frame has wooden bars nailed across it with spaces in-between.  The bees use these bars to begin constructing their panels.  No manmade panels, wire, or synthetic stamped wax is used.  This 57 centimeter tall space is exclusively for the bees’ nest and honey reserves. “In order to maintain health, a hive needs three things,” Perone explains.  “Lots of space, lots of honey, and lots of peace.  The beekeeper must never disturb this part of the hive.”

Over the bees’ portion of the hive are three smaller frames interlaced with wooden bars.  These frames are for the beekeeper.  Believe it or not after the bees have filled their section of the hive with honey they will continue to fill these upper frames.  When Perone harvests he only moves the roof and these three upper frames and bars, leaving the bees in peace.  Mr. Perone’s hives yield on average 120 kilograms of honey: 100 kilograms are harvested from the beekeepers’ section and 20 kilograms are left in the bees’ section for their nourishment, insulation, and protection.  An average Langstroth hive yields between 20 to 60 kilograms of honey per year. 

Perone is currently sharing his work with scientists at the University Austral of Chile, in hope that they will research and possibly validate his ideas.  Until then he has the testimonies of numerous professional beekeepers throughout Argentina, Chile, Brazil, Uruguay, Columbia, and Mexico, all of whom have made the switch to PermApiculture within the past eight years.  Every one of them has the thriving hives needed to demonstrate that Perone’s method may be able to save the bees.   

Photo Credits:  José Miguel Rueda, Alexis Torres

Save the Earth: Green The Sand


garden-in-the-sandWhen I met my WWOOF[1] host Alexis Torres in 2008, he was living on a South American island and growing a flourishing garden……..in sand.

Today at age twenty-seven this Chilean is one of his country’s foremost experts on permaculture, the design of sustainable and self-sufficient human environments.  Since permaculture’s a rather broad area, Torres does several things, but they all fall under a common theme: teaching people and communities how to lead a comfortable lifestyle in which they render all their own necessities from their local land without damaging or exhausting the natural resources.  

Unfortunately one of those natural resources, fertile soil, the base of nearly all our food, has already been decimated throughout several regions of the world.  “Modern agriculture has destroyed a total of farmland equal to the area of Canada and the United States combined,” Torres explained.  “Heavy machinery compacts the soil so plant roots can’t penetrate it.  Pesticides and tilling kill the microbes that fix nitrogen and break organic matter into the minerals plants need to grow. 

“Additionally, most farmers leave soil bare, exposing it to the elements.  Wind and rain erode uncovered soil while the sun fries microbes and evaporates water before it can reach the deeper layers of soil where many plant roots are located.”

The result is desertification and less space to cultivate food in an increasingly populated world.  Throughout central Chile, one can see acres of barren dirt, former fields that are now glazed with dust whenever the wind blows.  Similar sites blot Asia, Africa, and the other inhabited continents.

It’s this expanding collection of scorched earth that prompted Torres to start farming sand.

“I want to inspire people to recuperate the soil where they live,” Torres said.  “Whether fertility was lost from war, modern agriculture, or urbanization – for example, buildings that got torn down and now there’s just an empty plot – that land can be recovered and used to grow things.  People just need to see that it can be done and understand the basic principles of how to do it.”  

How did Torres make his sand garden?  In 2006 he began creating a border between the island’s sands and the river that ran by them.  Since the island was a thirty-minute walk from the village where he grew up, he was already familiar with the seasonal patterns and challenges he faced.  In summer the river bordering the island was merely a trickle, but when the winter rains came the waters swelled and carried a portion of the bank away.  Torres and some friends first altered the flow of the river by strategically placing small sticks that tilted the water away from the island and allowed sediment to build up against the shores.  They planted cattails along the banks, which raised the soil as the plants grew, the next generation growing out of the decay of the previous generation.  In winter then the elevated rooted banks protected the island’s sands from being washed away by the river.     

Another dilemma Torres faced was the absence of organic matter in the sand he wished to cultivate.  Without organic matter, the sand was unable to maintain water in the hot summer sun.  Torres and friends dug a series of banks and lined them with sticks and rocks.  They planted weeds at the bottoms of the banks and covered the tops with leaves, cardboard boxes, straw and sediment that had accumulated from the altered course of the river.  To provide gradual irrigation to the beds, plastic bottles were cut and the top portions were encased at the tops of banks to funnel water into deeper layers of the soil.  The second year chards, strawberries, and lima beans, which nitrated the soil, were planted.  As the sand gained fertility over the years other vegetables and fruits were placed in the garden.   

Obviously, Torres’s methods cannot be successfully copied detail by detail everywhere; basic conditions like protection from erosion and accumulation of organic matter will need to be reached in some form suitable for the environment of the desolated land.  Luckily Alexis Torres is not alone in his effort to save humanity’s source of life and nourishment.  If you are interested in learning more about how to turn a wasteland into a green land, you can check out these links to see what more people are doing:

For a great National Geographic article on fertile soil click here.

For an instructional video about see balls click here. 


Photo Credit: Alexis Torres-Peña

[1] WWOOF = World-wide opportunities on organic farms